When my friend Clotilde invited me to her birthday party, I asked what I could bring. She sweetly insisted that I was invited to come with my "hands in pockets, with just a smile, and a reserve of big American hugs".
"Big American hugs" is my running refrain here in France - the French customarily greet and part with a delicate kiss on each cheek.
When I first started working in professional kitchens in this country, it was at the Plaza Athenee Hotel in Paris - home of the Michelin three-star restaurant of superchef Alain Ducasse. The first part of my post-Cordon Bleu stage was in central pastry - the kitchen that supplies the sweets for most of the hotel. I was surprised to learn there that we started each workday by going around and greeting every one of our co-workers with handshakes and kisses on the cheeks. Most of the guys - and they are mostly guys in French kitchens - were content with the typical two, a few said three, and there was one who claimed four. When one of the boulangers said "Oh no, in my region we do six!" - I knew he was kidding even before his cohorts broke out in laughter. Bakers are the boisterous troublemakers of the French pastry, bakery, and chocolate fraternities.
Curiously - with all this kissing going on around here - they find "big American hugs" far too intimate. So they're a custom I reserve for only very good friends in France.
But I'm Chinese-American - a hyphenated personal proclamation that's mysterious outside of the States. "Are you Chinese or American?" my international cook friends constantly ask me. They find themselves simple enough - French, Japanese, or even very specifically Catalonian - not Spanish.
"Both," I say - a statement we further debate over whatever it is we're peeling, shelling, or deboning.
So for Clotilde's birthday I knew I wanted to give her not only my signature "big American hugs" but something Chinese too. A little thought with consideration to food and the season produced one obvious answer - peaches.
In Chinese culture peaches symbolise long life - some even say immortality - so they're often present at birthday banquets. But ironically they're usually as steamed sweet buns filled with red bean or date paste - their white cheeks blushed to imitate the ephemeral fruit. In this way the perfect appearance of peaches can be enjoyed no matter the season.
I'd considered going to the fine organic market at Batignolles to find some friend-worthy fruit - but then I remembered another more meaningful and magical place - Le Potager du Roi - the Kitchen Garden of the King - at Versailles.
As the crowd poured out of the train station and flooded the streets, I resigned myself to the strong likelihood that any peaches would long be gone - or whatever would be left would be bruised and battered. But after I paused to get my bearings - I realised that while the mob went one way, I went the other. When I arrived at Le Potager, I was the only visitor there.
There's a modest entry fee, but you're allowed to wander the grounds at will - or take a free hour-long tour in French. According to my personal student-gardener-guide, the garden was commisioned by Louis XIV - that's 14th for those of you a little rusty on your Roman numerology - back in 1678 to supply his royal self and his court of over 1,000 people with fresh produce. His favourites included figs, strawberries, peas, and asparagus. Le Potager thrives to this day as a living school with truly heirloom fruits and vegetables.
On this past Saturday afternoon, the innermost patches overflowed with summer bounty - radiant red berries, fields of fragrant herbs, and riotous bouquets of zucchini with blossoms still attached. Meticulously pruned trees provide protection all around - their branches heavy with apples and pears - even from their earliest days the gardeners successfully produced early fruit.
Along the sun-soaked south walls grow some trees "a la diable" - wildly "of the devil" - including nectarines - and yes - peaches. My guide and I each tasted one. Warm from the sun, brushed of dirt - they were flavourful and juicy - running over our hands - but we agreed a bit too soon be sweet. Sadly there were none of the garden's legendary Teton de Venus peaches - er - Tit of Venus.
What's not sold fresh in the small market at the garden is preserved as various edibles - juices, soups, or as the apple-pear and apple-rhubarb jams you see above.
The peaches and zucchini barely made it back to Paris intact - even with my precious handling. While they were meant as a symbolic birthday wish for a long and fortunate future, the journey itself was a rich reward to the past and a very fragile present.
Le Potager du Roi
10 rue du Maréchal Joffre
01 39 24 62 62